Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

Last week a media frenzy erupted in both England and Germany as former-German international football player Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed in an interview in Bild magazine that he is gay. If you haven’t heard of it, it probably means you are not a member of either of the dichotomous interest groups of football fans or the gay community. To anyone outside these two groups it is quite possible that the significance or relevance of the incident is confusing or nonexistent, yet to sports fans and the gay community it is quite a big deal indeed. Hitzlsperger wasn’t the best or most famous player in the world,  but he was a fan-favourite because every ten games or so he would fire an absolute cannon of a shot from outside the penalty area with his left foot, earning him the nickname ‘Der Hammer’. His was a name you would only hear every few years, never making headlines or securing lucrative promotional deals. Even so, he played at the highest level in Germany and England for over a decade, and played for his country at the World Cup and European Championships (admittedly at a time when there was a dearth of talent in the German National Team). There are hundreds of Thomas Hitzlspergers littered throughout the big football leagues of Europe, yet still, on January 8th 2014 he became the most high-profile footballer in history to come out publicly as a homosexual. He had retired from the game four months previously. To this date, no active professional footballer in a major European league has ever come out publically, yet the concensus in both England and Germany is that Hitzlspergers’ announcement would be a step towards this. The media frenzy surrounding  The Bi-Curious* Case of Thomas Hitzlsperger is not about the former footballer himself, but about which current, active footballer that he inspires.

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I would imagine that many people reading this by now are wondering what the big deal is, why don’t players just come out? There are 25,000 professional football players in major European leagues, they are all men, and while estimates of the percentage of gay men in the average population vary between 1% and 10% this still leaves a lot of professional footballers firmly in the closet. Add this to all the retired players in the history of the sport and the number is quite substantial. The potential selection bias must be dealt with: the stereotype that gay men don’t play sports, nor aspire to become professional athletes. This argument is simply ridiculous, and is conducive to an argument stating that homosexuality is unnatural. Elite athleticism is an admired and lucrative profession. It requires dedication, sacrifice and torturous hours of training, with potential rewards of universal adoration and millions of dollars/euros/pounds. It is no different than acting, singing, writing or any other highly public professions at which openly gay men and women have excelled in at the highest level possible. If there is a lack of openly gay men playing professional football in Europe, which is the most popular and financially rewarding sport in the world, this must therefore be an issue within football itself, and by abstraction within sport itself. The issue is that there are many gay footballers, and sportsmen and sportswomen, but they are afraid to come out in that environment.

The most obvious reason for this is that professional footballers at the elite level have to perform on a weekly basis in front of several thousand hostile fans. Players get the most awful abuse thrown at them by opposition fans. David Beckham had to endure half a decade of songs being sung about his whore of a wife (their words) from the terraces. Recently Jack Wilshere (one of Englands prominent young players) was cautioned by the football authorities for lashing back at sections of the crowd who were insulting his newborn child. Black players are routinely abused in stadia, particularly in Italy And Russia, with sections of the crowd throwing bananas at players and chanting like monkeys. Mario Balotelli is an Italian of Ghanian decent and one of the Italian national teams brightest stars, yet had to leave Italy to play elsewhere so he could develop properly away from this caustic environment. Anyone who is in anyway ‘different’ or in the public eye is mercilessly attacked, mostly in the hope that the abuse will affect the players’ mentality, that he will lose focus and therefore become less of a threat for the team supported by the chanting fans. Often it is a compliment to the abused player that he is getting attacked since it implies that the opposition fans regard him as dangerous to their team, yet still it requires a particular mental strength to dust off highly personal insults and focus on the task at hand. The difference with homosexuality is that the player has a (not necessarily easy) choice to hide the fact that he is gay.  A reasonable, objective argument for why gay players don’t come out is that they simply don’t want the added pressure of dealing with crowd abuse and prefer to focus on the game.  This is a highly naive argument however, as it assumes that any crowd (let alone a crowd of partisan, drunken, working class football fans) is composed of reasonable individuals. Homophobia is undoubtedly highly embedded within the sporting culture, and the first active players to come out publically will feel this wrath. Attitudes will change over time, but the first openly gay players will be mocked  and singled out for abuse by sections of the crowd wherever they go.

Why is all this important, though? Most people reading this will not have met any gay men with any interest in football whatsoever, so it seems like a very niche issue. Robbie Rogers, a young American player who retired, came out, and subsequently came back from retirement in a lower level (non elite, the American league), was asked about Hitzlsperger immediately after the German player came out. While growing up, Rogers had highly admired Hitzlspergers style of play, and said that if he had known that the player was gay it would have made a big difference to him. He would not have felt so isolated in such a homophobic environment as his choice of profession, it would have instilled him with confidence and belief that a gay footballer could succeed at the highest level. Football was Rogers’ way of fitting in with his peers, a way he could forget the shame, doubt and fear that came with knowing deep inside that he was different. I can only assume that there are countless other gay kids out there who love only to play sports, yet feel that their sexuality will ultimately come into play at some point and ruin their career.

At a basic level, it is about role models, someone similar to you who you can relate to and possibly aim to emulate. Lionel Messi, who only yesterday ceased being the Worlds’ Greatest Player Ever, has inspired a generation of tiny skinny kids in the playground that they too could compete with  the bigger kids in the yard. Cristiano Ronaldo, who replaced Messi yesterday by winning the Ballon d’Or, has hopefully convinced the kids in Madeira that there actually is a way off that godforsaken island, and that there is an alternative to serving drunk British tourists more alcohol day in, day out, for the rest of their lives. The first openly gay elite footballer is coming out soon, and while it will be a cross for that man to bear, his sacrifice will have an enormous effect on subsequent generations of players who know that they can achieve their potential, regardless of their personal lives.


*I am letting myself away with this awful joke simply because he only discovered he was gay very recently.
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The Greatest Trick Facebook Ever Pulled….

Recently, Channel 4 in the UK aired a documentary chronicling the rise of video games, hosted by England’s best satirist, Charlie Brooker. There’s not a lot in How Videogames Changed The World for people who don’t think videogames are one of the best things ever. For one thing, Brooker can’t decide if he wants the show to be a serious discussion of the issue or just a comic nostalgia-fest for people who grew up with Ataris or SNES’s or PSOnes. So, interspersed with jokes about our mothers’ sexual exploits are genuine discussions about the treatment of women in videogames, violence, and how Street Fighter 2 changed the industry by requiring tactical thinking in a videogame for the first time. Not many people watched it for this however, most of us just watched it to see where our favourite childhood games would come in the ranking of most influential videogames, a countdown which moved the narrative forward. No one watching it nor involved in the making of it actually believed that videogames changed the world, it was merely an exploratory discussion of the topic, and a love-letter to the medium in general. This was how I viewed it up until around the 90 minute mark. In the last argument of the 97 minute show, a curveball is thrown that really made me sit up and wonder if videogames actually had changed the world. It was the so-simple-that-it’s-almost-profound idea that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are really just Massively Multiplayer Online videogames played out on a grand scale.

I try to stay away from videogames, as ever since my earliest days of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt on the Nintendo Entertainment System, I tend to get overly-obsessed with them very quickly. As a result of this, I have probably bought 10 games in the last 15 years. Nowadays I only get my fix from the FIFA and Grand Theft Auto Franchises, and many of you will remember my obsession with GTAV from early October, which highlights the severity of my addiction to the medium, however isolated. Videogames operate through a system of challenges and rewards. A challenge is posed, which the gamer overcomes. The gamer then feels the thrill of overcoming the challenge as well as whatever rewards system is involved within the game. This is the essence of why people play videogames: in no other medium are we constantly, consistently validated and congratulated for our accomplishments. Feeling unappreciated at work? Come home, lead a squadron of soldiers safely through the photorealistic D-Day Landing in Medal of Honour. Or maybe, just maybe, post something funny, or a flattering photo of yourself on Facebook and see how many likes/comments/shares you get?

If I am making an argument about Facebook being a medium of self-validation, it is necessary to go back to the self. The Facebook Self is a special domain. It is not you, it is your ‘profile’. You create this profile by carefully selecting information you want others to know about you, and pictures of yourself that you think best define who you are. I am not being cynical or sarcastic: it is perfectly natural when given the opportunity to represent yourself virtually that you wish to portray your ideal self, the one you think you are or want to be: the one that is closest to the You that lives with you in your head. A Facebook profile is thus an avatar that we use to navigate ourselves though the digital world. This avatar interacts with other avatars, it has opinions, and it can recommend things it likes to others who can see its activity. All of these actions can be validated instantly by other users, either through a simple ‘like’ or an actual comment. If you ever wondered why you are addicted to Facebook, the answer is here: it is the only place that your ideal, perfect self will ever be validated, and this can happen hundreds of times a day if you wish. The more you use it, the more validation you will get. Every argument, link, opinion or photo is posted by and endorsed by the avatar you created to represent who you are. If someone ‘likes’ that, then that is not only a validation for your You, but also the actual you. Traditional videogames rarely achieved such a transcendence in transporting the achievements of an avatar onto the confidence of the gamer in real life.

As with any MMOG, there are of course many different ways to play the game. It is possible to be passive, to observe, and to use the Facebook platform simply to communicate with friends. These people obviously have never played videogames, and are immune to the rewards system. Others play the game by recommending things like music, movies, food or political opinions. In this mode of the game, being first to mention the topic is pivotal in the rewards mechanism. Having someone share a link/song/movie trailer that you originally posted is the pinnacle of success, especially as it will include a mention of you as the finder of the content. A corollary of this type of player would be being the first person to announce a celebrity death or world event. Other players try and create content for their avatars to endorse. They write funny one-liners, they take photos, make videos, write blogs. Players achieve validation and earn rewards (likes/comments/shares) through getting noticed above all the other things that litter the newsfeed of his/her followers. All of these game modes are equally valid, in the same way that when you start playing Grand Theft Auto V you have the choice to engage in the story, play the multiplayer, or else simply drive around killing people. It really doesn’t matter in the end, it’s all just a game.

Videogames did change the world in that without generations of kids growing up with videogame systems and their rewards mechanisms, social networks like Facebook and Twitter would not be so prevalent. And anyone who does not think that these networks are important for the way this world works is absolutely delusional. Justin Bieber made millions of dollars simply by validating one out every thousand of his Twitter followers with a retweet. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was built on the back of Facebook. As with all of my videogame endeavours, I am thoroughly addicted to social networks. Like many of you who sit in an office at a computer for much of the day, I have a Facebook tab constantly open on my browser, in order to learn of new notifications. By posting this blog on Facebook I am of course attempting to communicate ideas which befit the ideal Me, but which the actual me would fall short on delivering in person (any validation is appreciated).  We create Facebook profiles and Twitter profiles to portray us, delivering a selection of carefully curated content that we think best represents us, and by others liking that content, they are actually liking us. It may sound sad and pathetic to put it in these words, but it is no more sad and pathetic than the rush you get from finally achieving three stars on that level of Angry Birds, finally defeating M. Bison in Street Fighter 2: Turbo, or getting retweeted by someone with one million followers. If you think about it, there is an upside. Stop worrying about the NSA stealing all your metadata: the person whose data they are stealing isn’t you anyway.